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A Tale of Two HDRs - Updated with 3rd version (happy medium?)

Discussion in 'Digital Photography' started by Keleko, Jul 25, 2011.

  1. Keleko, Jul 25, 2011
    Last edited: Jul 29, 2011

    macrumors 68000

    First, the two images.

    Stone Mountain Lake Sunset by Gerg1967, on Flickr

    Sunset at Stone Mountain by Gerg1967, on Flickr

    The first image I posted in the "Photo of the Day" thread. I stayed up a bit late to process it after I got home from shooting so I could use it for that day's shot. However, I wasn't quite happy with it when I was done. After work today I worked on a slightly earlier set of exposures and made some different choices with my post processing.

    I like the second image much better than the first, and not just because I like the position of the sun better. I think the second image looks more natural than the first. With the first image I think I went too far with the "micro contrast" settings in Photomatix. That made the clouds have too much contrast compared to what they actually looked like when I was there. I may attempt to re-process later to get a better version of it.

    I also happen to like the framing of the second a little bit better. The sun rays are more interesting looking, and the foreground plants give a better balance to the whole of the picture in my opinion.

    So, am I right? Do you like the first or the second version better? Or do they both suck? :)
  2. macrumors 6502


    Personally, I think they are both quite nice. And this is quite a complement from me (because my ego needs a bit more boosting). I followed the usual HDR path of discovery, used it on everything I shot, and finally loathing and having an upset stomach upon viewing most HDR images.

    So let me begin (again) by saying neither of them are really overdone. And I like the framing (and the clouds) better on the first one. I also find the flair the sun gives to be distracting as it overpowers the tree line behind it, whereas in the first photo the sun is no more than a glow.

    You may have gone a little overboard with the clouds, but on a whole it looks good.

    EDIT: After re-reading your own critique I noticed I pretty much disagreed with you on every point. Sorry.
  3. TheReef, Jul 25, 2011
    Last edited: Jul 25, 2011

    macrumors 68000


    I strongly prefer the first, the sky and reflection make this pic imo, and the HDR helps bring out some of their nice qualities.
    I also prefer the contrast of the first shot (eg the lower brightness of the trees compared to the levels of the reflection), Imo this looks more appealing than the brightened shadows of the second. These brightened shadows cause everything to not feel quite right for me, the levels are too balanced if that makes sense.
  4. gnd
    macrumors 6502a


    I prefer the second one. I don't like the pink hue in the clouds on the right side in the first one, the second one in the same area has some really nicely shaped sharp clouds. The colors of the sky in general look a lot more real to me in the second one. Also compositionally I prefer the frame you made with the shore and the bushes in the second one, it prevents the eye to go out of the frame following the ripple lines and reflections on the water on the right side. The circular reflection in the second is a bit distracting though and I agree with emorydunn about the sun flare, once you notice it you can't "forget" it, it becomes a distraction. Another difference I noticed is that in the first one (at least for me) the main subject is the hill with the antenna and the house on the shore while in the second one the main subject becomes the sun with its rays, it overpowers everything else. I also agree with TheReef about the shadows, they're too bright in the second one, bring them down a bit.
  5. macrumors 65816


    I prefer the first one, for the same reasons as listed above. Have you considered taking a long exposure of this scene? I'm curious to see what it would look like if the reflection in the lake was smooth and without ripples
  6. macrumors 68040


    I'm not too keen on either pic, to be honest. The scene itself is fine, and I appreciate that without HDR there'd be little or no detail in the building on the shoreline. But, well, detail is lost when we look towards the sun, and our eyes and our brain tells us this is 'right'. To see the sun in shot, and so much detail in the shadows, feels 'wrong'... like we're looking at a still from a CGI movie... which makes us go "wow" at first, but soon feels rather artificial.

    HDR has created a lot of 'drama' in the sky. The clouds have more 'body', feel more 3-D... but they don't convince me... 'cos I've seen a lot of clouds (a bit of a speciality in the UK) and I know they don't look like that.

    I've been having a 'spring clean' of my photos, chucking out pix that didn't quite work. Very few HDR pix made the cut. I still think the technique has valid uses (mostly for 'lighting' interiors), but for 99.9999% of my landscape shots, I can't see much use for it. HDR is a bit of a distraction, IMO, from what the light is actually doing...
  7. macrumors demi-god


    I prefer the first. The sun is less distracting and it has an overall more dramatic feel.

    I would be interested to see what the +/- 0EV exposure looked like out of the camera!
  8. macrumors 601



    • It's good to see more of the bush at the left. It's present enough to be effective, unlike the fringe we get in the second shot.
    • Small bunch of foliage on the ground is far enough to the right to direct the eye back into the scene at a good point.
    • Hill makes a strong subject/focal point. The clouds form leading lines right to it, and the relatively subdued sun helps draw attention to the hill without overpowering it.
    • Floating debris in dark area at left reflects light and stands out nicely.


    • The overall color palette, especially in the sky, is more pleasing and less suggestive of the HDR treatment (which causes that telltale 'burnt' quality we see in the first shot).
    • The shoreline in the foreground looks more intentional here. In the first shot it's too marginal. It's usually best to shoot beyond the shoreline or else include enough of it to serve as a deliberate base/frame for the image.
    • Ripples in the foreground are nice.
    • Sun rays are exciting, but they dominate the image, overpowering the mountain. Something in between, just a twinkle of rays, would be ideal.
    • Clipped highlights around the sun and its reflection spoil the subtlety of the image. The same is true for the first image as well. The transitions might be less harsh without the HDR treatment.

    In summary, I'd say that the first shot wins by a narrow margin, mostly because the second one has a more busy, fussy quality about it. The clouds and color of the sky in the first shot aren't as pretty, but the patterns of the clouds aid the composition; in the second shot, they demand more attention in a scene that already has two competing focal points (sun and mountain). The HDR treatment really amplifies the presence of the clouds, which isn't helping.


    I haven't touched an HDR program in years, so I don't know how far they've come. Can you make changes selectively these days? The problem I have with most HDR images is that the process is usually applied globally, causing as many problems as it fixes. If you have Photoshop, you might try combining an HDR layer with a 'straight' one, painting a mask with areas of varying transparency so that you can have a bit more dynamic range only where you really need it (usually in the shadows to get some detail out of them).

    His lake is already pretty smooth, providing a nice reflection and rather lovely ripples, in my view. Also, a longer exposure might make the foliage in the foreground show motion blur, which wouldn't be desirable.

    I don't mind the detail in the shadows at all. It's not the shadows that strike me as necessarily artificial. The human eye in this situation probably could make out such detail; it's the typical camera sensor that cannot. The clouds, however, definitely introduce a sense of artificiality, calling the whole into question--when one area looks heavily manipulated, everything else tends to lose its credibility. Anything that calls attention to the technique makes it difficult for the viewer to suspend disbelief and appreciate the fiction for what it is.

    So I essentially agree with Doylem that the HDR treatment has done some harm to these photos, but I think a touch of extra dynamic range can work well if it's applied selectively and subtly.

    For example, have a look at the work of this photographer. Many of his photos employ a dynamic range that is well beyond what you can get without some careful post-processing, but his treatments are selective and subtle enough to stay out of the way. For the most part, his photos declare themselves as hyper-realistic fine art creations, as opposed to documentary/stock images, but they stop short of drawing attention to their maker's technique.
  9. macrumors demi-god


    Just wanted to say that I completely agree and thanks for sharing a great link! Some of those photos are definitely inspirational!
  10. macrumors 68040


    Interesting pix, certainly... but 'Nature is my Kingdom'?? Oof... :p
  11. macrumors 601


    Hehe. Yeah, I have to admit he went over the top on that one. :rolleyes:
  12. macrumors 6502a


    The first one, because I like the sun being partially shown
  13. macrumors 68000

    Thanks for all the great feedback. I find it interesting all the different perspectives on the two pictures.

    I may have brightened them up too much, I agree. Fortunately, that's an easy slider to back down on.

    Once again, agreed with the shadows. I'll back them off. Unfortunately I can't back off the sun rays. I do have a set of exposures with a bit less sun rays, though. I'll try to process it like the second one (with less brightened shadows) and see if it is a good balance. I think the framing is similar to the 2nd shot.

    I get it. HDR is not for everyone. I use it when it is not possible to capture all the light in a single exposure. When I was at the scene, I could clearly see the far shoreline, pavilion on the shore, and the details on the mountain. When I expose to get the sky detail, the rest becomes much too dark to see any of the detail that I saw when I was there. So HDR is the only way to recover that detail, too. I tried playing with the shadow levels on the middle exposure, and bringing them up to "right" was just way too noisy. I couldn't remove the noise without losing all the detail that was there.

    The second shot has less drama in the sky than the first. The second shot I tried to keep the sky more natural looking.

    I can tell you the far shoreline is so dark as to have almost no detail because the sun was behind it. The sky is not blown out and the reflections look good, too. When I get a chance, I can upload that after I clean it up, though I won't brighten the shadows very much because they get too noisy.

    Very thoughtful discussion on them. Thanks for that. Would it look better if the first shot was processed to look more like the second?

    No, you pretty much have to do it the way you just described. That's more work than I'm willing to spend time on right now. But if you want the best looking HDR images, that's what you have to do.
  14. macrumors regular

    As a completely amateur photographer I can say that I can't decide which one I like more. I believe that the HDR result in both pictures is flawless. Besides the HDR processing, I think the second picture is better in terms of light since I can see more details, but the sun rays constantly distract my eyes. No matter what I try to see, my eyes "return" back to the sun.

    p.s. I don't know if I expressed my opinion and feelings properly and if I made myself clear. If not I apologise.
  15. macrumors 6502a

    I love the first one, but i like more 'unreal' photographs (like leibovitz, hill, crisman etc)

    Coould I ask how you did it, was it 3 or 5 exposures and did you use a 3rd party program like photomatix?
  16. macrumors 68000

    I spent some more time with them this morning before work. I'm starting to like the first one more again. The main reason for that is the far shoreline has much better detail. The tree reflections have better detail, too. The colors are a bit off after comparing with the original exposures, though, so I'm going to redo the HDR process and try to keep the colors more natural. I also am bothered by too much drama in the sky that wasn't there. However, it makes for a pretty picture that way. :)

    These are both 3 exposures combined with Photomatix and then further adjusted with Topaz and Aperture.

    For a comparison, here's the 0 EV of the second picture. I edited it in PSE 9, used Topaz for some adjustments and Aperture for a little bit more. I was able to bring the far shoreline up some so you can actually make out some of it, but it is just not right to me. Both the far and close shorelines are too dark compared to actually being there. The sky and reflections are much more what I remember, though, but that's not a surprise since I was exposing for that.

    Sunset at Stone Mountain non-HDR by Gerg1967, on Flickr
  17. macrumors 6502a

    I would say that the original, first shot was quite natural; if you compare it to my quick Photoshop (ignore all of the mask feather) - mine's unnatural. The second one is good, however you can't see the back trees as well - they look washed out, in comparison to the first one. I prefer the first HDR as it's somewhat natural (compare the green of the trees to mine, and the blue of the sky to mine), and nothing seems washed out. Although the top left clouds do look slightly unnatural. The third one is nice - the green's natural, but the sky seems empty, after seeing the first HDR shot. The only unnatural part of the first one are the clouds in the top left.

    Attached Files:

  18. macrumors 68000

    I think I may have found a "happy medium" set of exposures and post processing. This set is a few minutes earlier than the first picture I processed.

    @Phrasikleia: I used your critique as my main guide in choosing the set and processing I used. It has a small amount of sun rays without being overpowering. There's more shoreline in this framing. I tried to keep the colors more natural looking. Basically, I tried to combine the best of both original pictures when I picked and processed this one.

    So, what do you think? Is the new one better than the first two? I already like it better, but then I'm somewhat biased because I just finished working on it. :)

    Sunset at Stone Mountain Ver. 3 by Gerg1967, on Flickr
  19. macrumors 68040


    The third version might be an improvement: ie it exhibits fewer of the 'artefacts' that scream 'HDR!' But I'm still rather suspicious about the idea of putting so much 'work' into a single image, trying to coax something special, via PP, out of one collection of naughts and ones.

    If I was going to devote that amount of time to a single image, I'd be happier for it to be at the taking stage, rather than the 'staring at my computer' stage. I'd be waiting by that lake, watching the sun going down, seeing what effect that would have on the landscape. I'd be 'going with the flow', trying to take the pictures that my camera 'likes' to take... rather than trying to force the issue with HDR. A software 'solution' can actually stop us looking, IMO. We assume we can put things right in PP, instead of investigating all the possibilities at the taking stage.

    My feeling about HDR (and I've experimented with it quite a lot over the past three years) is that it's a valid tool in the toolbox. But, like a lot of other specialised tools, it's not a universal panacea. In most landscape contexts it's like trying to bang in a nail with a spanner; it can be done... but why not use a hammer?
  20. macrumors 601


    Yes, best one yet. The sun rays are exactly right now. The composition and cloud patterns are all working well for you. There is plenty to keep the eye interested here. The image still bears the telltale signs of HDR, but that's not necessarily a bad thing (I've already admitted I'm biased about HDR, while many people are not), but this is a relatively subtle application of it. My own approach would be to bring out even a bit more brightness and color vibrancy (though selectively, and not by using an HDR program), but at that point you're getting down to a matter of style, which is of course a very personal thing. To me the image looks rather dark overall, as if I'm looking at the scene through sunglasses, but others may see it differently.

    I applaud your tenacity with this one. It's a good exercise in post-processing. You're taking a series of images that were shot well to begin with and are exploring ways to get the most out of a very challenging scene (as opposed to finding ways to fix problems that occurred at the moment of capture). If you don't find yourself too jaded with this set after what you've done already, you might try a non-HDR approach by blending a couple of exposures with layers and masks selectively in Photoshop sometime. Or maybe you could even get something special out of a single exposure with a graduated "ND" fill in LR over the sky and a generous push of the Fill Light slider. If nothing else, it will be good practice for future images. Once you know the possibilities and limitations of what you can do in post, you can use that knowledge to inform your picture-taking process. That may mean looking at scene and saying, "not worth it," or it may mean looking at a scene and knowing you can bring it out with the right combination of shooting and processing.

    By the way, if you don't already have a panel-type GND filter, I would recommend you pick one up for these sorts of scenes; that way you can often avoid altogether the need for multiple exposures.
  21. TheReef, Jul 29, 2011
    Last edited: Jul 29, 2011

    macrumors 68000


    Great stuff, thanks for sharing P.

    Keleko, I like the third more as a whole, but still prefer the features of the first image in the region I circled.

    I like the way the building stands out and how the glow in the water appears to be more alive (especially where it meets the reflection of the trees).

    Attached Files:

  22. macrumors 6502a

    Thanks for sharing your process, much appreciated
  23. macrumors 68000

    I take a lot of pictures that don't require this much work. I'm also still learning the right way to process an HDR and the tools I use. For that reason it will take more time to get it right. I think I like going the software way with HDR because I'm a programmer, and using it to create a single image from multiple shots appeals to that part of me. I even slightly feel that putting a filter on a camera is "artificial" because it isn't what the eye sees, but it is another way around the limitations of the camera compared to the eye. We just happen to prefer different methods to achieve nearly the same result. HDR is still new, too, so the software is only going to get better as time goes on.

    As I mentioned above, I think I'm biased to going for multiple exposures because it appeals to the software side of me. :) I think I agree with you about the colors, too. I actually did work on them some more after I uploaded this shot to make them a bit more vibrant. It does look better that way, but I don't feel like uploading any more versions now. It is the one I'm keeping as the final version. At some point I have to stop and call it done, and I think I've reached that point.

    Note that I don't have Lightroom. I have Aperture instead. I also have the Topaz toolset, Photomatix and Photoshop Elements 9. I'm not likely to try to layer in exposures in PSE. I find it a very tedious and trying to blend the edges too difficult to do easily.

    At some point I would like to get a set of filters just so I can do really long exposures in bright light. So I'm not totally against them. :)

    Thanks for all the feedback and help in getting a good image out of my evening of shooting. It has been really helpful.
  24. macrumors 65816

    IMHO this thinking is very limiting though. The truth is, with current camera technology you could wait at that site for a year and still not be able to create this shot in the traditional manner. The dynamic range is simply too great to capture in one scene. The camera would "like" to take a shot of the same scene but instead of the great sunset, a dull overcast day. You'd get all the dynamic range in a single shot there and not require as much PP work but the final result would be equally dull. Your eyes just have a vastly superior dynamic range than any current silicon sensor, and therefore you will never be able to accurately recreate what your eyes are seeing without resorting to more advanced methodology.

    Furthermore, it is not like every image you take gets (or deserves) this kind of treatment. However, the fact of the matter is that digital PP (and film PP, back in the darkroom days) is a major part in completing the shooter's vision of the finished piece, and some images simply require that amount of work to achieve the highest levels of execution. If you don't want to put in that amount of effort it is your perogative but don't disparage others for wanting to do so.

    I suppose this ultimately gets back to the "makers vs takers" or "hunters vs gatherers" analogy that was brought up in a recent thread- some have a specific vision they are trying to achieve, but others are content to collect what is made available to them.

    Sorry for the digression- As for the new 3rd shot, it definitely is improved over the first two, and finally starts to ditch the tone mapped look. My only suggestions here would be that the grass in the FG still has a slight tone mapped look to it. Also, following the link to view the image at full size, the sky seems to have too strong of NR applied, as the result is pretty blotchy and soft.

    Instead of tone mapping merged exposures, have you tried processing the different exposures separately (for sky, or foreground, etc), and blending the results together in PS? It might serve as a good exercise in comparing blending vs tone mapping.

  25. macrumors 68000

    Please note that "full size" is less than half the resolution of the full image on my computer because I don't upload the actual full size. That said, yes, the sky is a bit soft. I didn't apply much noise reduction, though, so I'm exactly sure where it got that way. (The "RAW Light" preset in Topaz DeNoise is what I used.) I may go back through the steps yet again and see if I can prevent that.

    As for blending exposures in PS, I suck at it. Really suck at it. I don't know how to do it well. I can't ever get the edges of the blended exposures right, so they really stick out and are obvious. I'm not sure I want to spend the time to do it that way right now.

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